Commentary

On UW’s diversity deal and voucher schools, Team Public Ed is getting creamed

Unforced errors and weak defense in the face of an aggressive, triumphant right wing

December 15, 2023 5:30 am
losing team

The UW Regents caved to pressure from Republicans to end diversity programs and the Wisconsin Supreme Court punted on a voucher lawsuit in a bad week for public education. | Photo by Getty Images Creative

It was a terrible week for public education in Wisconsin.

On Wednesday, in an embarrassing about-face, the UW Board of Regents reversed its four-day-old decision to reject strong-arming by legislative Republicans demanding that UW begin dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion programs in exchange for the release of promised pay raises and capital investments. As Baylor Spears reports, students of color, who have long felt less than welcome on University of Wisconsin campuses, had been cheered by the Regents’ earlier, unexpected display of backbone, apparently bolstered by an outpouring from faculty, staff and students who were thrilled to be heard. It all melted away on Wednesday night when, responding to threats from Republicans who refused to budge on the deal, the Regents re-voted to accept the exact same package they had voted against on Saturday.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and right-wing anti-diversity activists were triumphant. They made it clear in their public statements that the current deal is only “the first step” in their long-term plan to completely do away with diversity programs that recognize and seek redress for systemic racism. 

The whole fiasco made the Regents and the university look feckless and weak. So much for Gov. Tony Evers’ lawsuit seeking to force the Legislature to cough up the pay raises they’d already passed in the budget anyway. Now, in every negotiation going forward, the Republicans will be emboldened to refuse to make good on their promises until they extract more concessions from the UW.

On the very same day the DEI deal went down, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s private school voucher system as an unconstitutional drain on public schools.

As with the Regents’ fumbling of the DEI deal, the liberal majority’s decision to punt on vouchers shows the lack of coordination and determination among progressives, Democrats and public officials charged with defending public education in the face of an aggressive rightwing assault.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take the case up on original jurisdiction,” said Julie Underwood, former dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Still, she added, the decision “does not indicate that our arguments were wrong or weak or that the vouchers and independent charters are constitutional. It just means that we will have to start in a Wisconsin trial court. That is, of course, the typical path for litigation.”

Kirk Bangstad, the Minocqua Brewing Company owner whose liberal super PAC funded the lawsuit, said he wasn’t surprised that the Court declined to take it up, given that Evers had taken a position opposing the lawsuit. But Bangstad vowed to continue pursuing the case in lower court. 

In both the UW’s DEI deal and in the rejection of the lawsuit attempting to address the existential threat posed by Wisconsin’s metastasizing private school choice program to public schools, Democrats and progressives calculated that it’s too costly to stick up for the public interest. 

In the first instance, Republican threats of financial strangulation and the removal of Evers’ appointees from the Board of Regents helped propel the decision to compromise. In the voucher case, the Supreme Court’s new liberal majority, facing threats of impeachment from the same Republican-dominated Legislature, had to decide whether to expend its energy on a lawsuit targeting the rich and powerful school choice lobby or keep its powder dry for hot-button cases on gerrymandering and abortion rights. 

Even Evers, the former state schools superintendent and public school advocate, saw fit to compromise with the school choice lobby in the latest budget negotiation, handing over a historic bump in taxpayer-financed private school tuition to voucher schools in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to stop holding shared revenue for Milwaukee and other cities hostage.

In all of these cases, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that hostage-taking is a winning strategy for Republicans and that, even if some hostages are rescued, in the long run the public interest is getting compromised away.

A strong, healthy public education system is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. And the health of our democracy is currently under attack. The attacks include culture-war crusades against diversity programs as well as school privatization efforts which, as the voucher lawsuit petition stated, are “affirmatively designed to undermine Wisconsin’s public education system by robbing it blind, forcing local districts into financial death spirals.” 

After the voucher lawsuit was filed, ads began popping up on TV with cute kids and parents professing their fears about losing their beloved private schools.

The school privatization lobby has worked hard for years to promote the idea that private schools offer a high-quality alternative to “failing” public schools. The rightwing Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, has poured millions of dollars into this message. But, as Wisconsin’s voucher program expanded, some truly wretched private schools have popped up to take advantage of the public funds diverted from public schools to cover tuition at academies where professional standards for teachers are lower and accountability and oversight are lax. Baylor Spears reported recently on a HOPE Christian voucher school, which was so understaffed according to former employees that teachers, desperate for a break, would leave their students unattended in the gym. Spears began her investigation after an accident put a little boy in the hospital earlier this year. 

It’s important that Wisconsinites ask themselves whether they really want to replace a public school system with adequate funding, high standards, professional teachers, and democratic oversight by local school boards with a Wild West of private options in which you take your chances with a taxpayer-financed voucher or pay your own way.

The voucher lawsuit that the Supreme Court rejected got to the heart of the matter, challenging the validity of a system that has expanded from an experimental program for 350 kids in Milwaukee to a massive network serving 55,000 students statewide and rapidly draining funds from the public schools. By using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools, the state is violating the clause of the state constitution that says public funds must be used for a “public purpose,” the lawsuit claimed.

Although Republicans denounced the lawsuit as silly and meritless, after it was filed, they appeared to tacitly acknowledge the strength of its core claims in a pair of bills that seek to de-couple funding for voucher and independent charter schools from local public school districts. The bills propose that, instead, vouchers and private charters be funded entirely through state general purpose funds.

One of the measures, LRB-5052, currently being circulated for co-sponsorship by Sens. John Jagler (R-Watertown) and Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and Reps. Ellen Schutt (R-Clinton) and Dave Maxey (R-New Berlin), states in the bill description: “By decoupling the funding of new student vouchers from local district finances, those new students would no longer count in the resident district membership.”

Assembly Bill 688, introduced by Reps. Schutt, Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), Joy Goeben (R-Hobart), Samba Baldeh (D-Madison), Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield), Jerry O’Connor (R-Fond du Lac), Nik Rettinger (R-Mukwanago), Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) and Elijah Behnke (R-Oconto), likewise “repeals reductions to state aid paid to school districts for per pupil payments to independent charter schools.”

Both measures, if passed, could come in handy if the courts agree with Underwood and Bangstad that vouchers and private charters are “forcing local districts into a financial death spiral.” But not counting students as members of their local school district and funding them entirely through state aid doesn’t do anything to address the larger financial problem, which is that Wisconsin cannot afford to pay for two school districts, one private and one public, from the same limited pot of taxpayer funds. 

The majority of Wisconsinites support strong public schools and equal opportunity for historically disadvantaged kids. We need to form a united front to stand up for those basic, democratic values. We need to stop an aggressive, bullying minority from pushing us around. We owe it to our kids.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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